For High Technology, A Bolt From The Blue

New diodes promise denser disks and brighter bulbs -- just for starts

In an electronics store in central Tokyo, a sleek Sony Corp. (SNE ) display hypes the latest digital gizmo: A device that reads and writes to special disks that hold five times more video, music, or data than standard digital video disks -- up to 12 hours of regular television programs.

The secret? A semiconductor the size of a grain of sand that glows an intense blue. The laser powered by this light can etch more information on a disk than today's DVDs because of its shorter wavelength. Despite a handful of curious onlookers, though, there aren't many buyers for Sony's $3,360 Blu-Ray recorder. "It's too expensive," acknowledges salesman Junpei Kawana.

Expensive, yes. But don't think that powerful blue light will never reach the living room. In fact, blue light-emitting diodes (or LEDs) -- which are based on the same fundamental technology -- are already becoming ubiquitous, and the lasers themselves are close on their heels. The lasers are used today in medicine and industrial printing, and snazzy, high-capacity disks like those used by Sony will likely be common equipment on video recorders and computers by the end of the decade. Blue LEDs are found in products ranging from mobile-phone keypads and digital billboards to bright white headlights of the Audi A8 sedan. "The next step is general lighting for home and office," says Koichi Ota, a director at Toyoda Gosei Co., an affiliate of Toyota Motor Corp. (TM ) that last year sold $300 million worth of blue LEDs for use in cars and other applications. In 2003, the global market for blue LEDs was nearly $1.9 billion, and sales are expected to double by 2007, according to market researcher Strategies Unlimited. Blue laser disk recorders are a fraction of that, but could grow to a $500 million market by 2007 if prices fall, according to researcher In-Stat/MDR.

Lasers, as well as LEDs of various colors -- like the red ones used as indicator lights on phones -- have been around for decades. But blue diodes and lasers are far more difficult to produce and were only developed about a decade ago by researchers in Japan. Blue light is key because it can be mixed with red and green to produce a pure white for use in lighting fixtures. The big advantage: LEDs consume 80% less power than incandescent bulbs and last more than 10 times as long. And since they're superthin and produce virtually no heat, LEDs can take just about any shape imaginable.

DAMPENING THE GLOW. What's slowing this revolution is the same factor that keeps people from snapping up Sony's new Blu-Ray recorders: price. Blue LEDs and lasers haven't become enough of a commodity yet to drive down the cost. An LED lamp that puts out the same amount of white light as an incandescent bulb, for instance, would cost $290, says Robert V. Steele, director of optoelectronics research at Strategies Unlimited. What's more, LEDs are less than half as efficient as fluorescent lights. For uses such as home lighting, skeptics say blue-based LEDs may never be truly price competitive with incandescent lighting. Proponents counter that blue LEDs and lasers will follow the same path as other semiconductors. "Economies of scale will definitely push down prices," says Doug Silkwood, marketing director at LumiLeds Lighting, a joint venture of Agilent Technologies Inc. (A ) and Philips Lighting (PHG ).

A number of companies are now scrambling for a piece of the action. In addition to LumiLeds, there's Durham (N.C.)-based Cree, Germany's Osram Opto Semiconductors, and Nichia and Toyoda Gosei Co. of Japan. Meanwhile, a dozen big electronics manufacturers, such as Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. of Japan and Royal Philips Electronics of the Netherlands, are gearing up to make blue laser recorders based on the same technology used in the Sony machine. A rival format is also in the works, and it's unclear which one will prevail -- but both use blue lasers. So don't be surprised to see more blue coming to a living room near you.

By Chester Dawson, with Hiroko Tashiro, in Tokyo

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